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The Bristol Register presents evidence of an anomaly in the statistics of the servant trade. The number of servants leaving the port was relatively low in 1654 and 1655, then rose steadily through the later 1650s and early 1660s, only to drop off during the summer and fall of 1663, never again to recover the old peak. The largest number to leave in a single year, measured from Michaelmas to Michaelmas, was over eight hundred, but after the fall of 1662 the totals exceed four hundred only four times and never exceed five hundred (see Table 29).[4] Calendar-year totals show the same pattern as those for harvest years (Table 30). When measured against the best available estimates of total migration to the colonies, these figures seem rather puzzling. Between 1654 and 1662, for example, Bristol’s share of average annual emigration from the British Isles to America may have been as high as 9.6 percent. But from 1662 to 1669, the city’s share appears to have dropped to 8.1 percent, and by the 1670s it seems to have amounted to no more than 5.0 percent. Yet Bristol’s involvement in trans-Atlantic commerce became, if anything, even stronger in these years than it had been in the 1650s. We would expect it to have maintained its share of the servant trade or at least to have experienced a less precipitous decline.[5] The relation of servant enrollments in Bristol to English population trends also points to another puzzle. In the years from 1655 to 1662, emigration from the city was closely correlated to net migration from England. After 1662 there is no longer any correlation between the figures for Bristol and those for the country as a whole.[6] Was there in fact an abrupt change in the nature of the servant trade after 1662, or are we observing an artifact of the registration system itself? Why did it cease working uniformly and effectively in the period after 1662?

30. Emigration and Tobacco Prices, 1655-1678
    Servants to the Chesapeake[a]    
Calendar Year Total No.
of Servants
1 2 3 4 Farm Price
of Tobacco
Source: Servant data are from Bristol Record Office, MSS 04220 (1–20); tobacco prices, given in pence sterling per pound of tobacco, are from Russell Menard, “The Tobacco Industry in the Chesapeake Colonies,” Working Papers from the Regional Economic History Research Center 1, no. 3 (1978): 158–59. The figures for 1654 to 1658 are Virginia prices; thereafter they are Maryland prices.
(1654) 2.65
A. 1655 267 112 112 113 113 2.30
1656 336 70 110 123 117 2.20
1657 616 58 115 165 140 2.40
1658 779 103 188 210 199 1.90
1659 903 99 266 305 286 1.65[b]
1660 603 76 181 170 176 1.50[b]
1661 723 89 349 338 344 1.50
1662 836 374 506 501 503 1.60[b]
    Total A 5,063 981 1,827 1,925 1,878  
    Annual average 633 123 228 241 235  
B. 1663 397 158 159 159 159 1.55[b]
1664 251 121 121 121 121 1.35
1665 309 242 244 243 244 1.10
1666 332 257 257 257 257 0.90
1667 355 222 222 222 222 1.10
1668 402 291 291 291 291 1.25
1669 344 201 201 201 201 1.15
1670 334 168 172 172 172 1.15[b]
    Total B 2,724 1,660 1,667 1,666 1,667  
    Annual average 341 208 208 208 208  
C. 1671 284 152 152 152 152 1.05
1672 255 208 208 209 209 1.00
1673 93 69 69 69 69 1.00
1674 369 194 194 197 196 1.00
1675 395 294 294 295 295 1.00
1676 223 171 172 172 172 1.05
1677 202 129 129 129 129 1.15
1678 177 138 138 138 138 1.15
    Total C 1,998 1,355 1,356 1,361 1,360  
    Annual average 250 169 170 170 170  
       Total A–C 9,785 3,996 4,850 4,952 4,905  
       Annual average 408 167 202 206 204  
1655–1662 / (significance level) -.72 (.05) -.66 (.10) -.69 (.10)  
  Time lag [c] / (significance level) -.78 (.05) -.75 (.05) -.77 (.05)  
1663–1678 / (significance level) +.12 (N.S.) -.23 (N.S.) -.23 (N.S.)  
  Time lag [c] / (significance level) -.20 (N.S.) -.20 (N.S.) -.20 (N.S.)  
1655–1678 / (significance level) -.03 (N.S.) -.02 (N.S.) -.03 (N.S.)  
  Time lag [c] / (significance level) -.17 (N.S.) -.10 (N.S.) -.14 (N.S.)  
1659–1678 [d] / (significance level) +.40 (.10) +.42 (.10) +.41 (.10)  
  Time lag (1660–1678)[d] / (significance level) +.23 (N.S.) +.21 (N.S.) +.22 (N.S.)  

In recent years we have come to know a good deal about the overall pattern of migration from England in the seventeenth century. The peak years of this migration were the 1650s, when perhaps as many as seventy-two hundred individuals, many of them servants, went each year from England and Wales to the American colonies. In the decades thereafter, the pace slackened to between 60 and 70 percent of this total.[7] A number of explanations have been presented for this course of development. Mildred Campbell has argued that decayed conditions in the clothmaking districts of the West Country and economic pressures on West Country leaseholders at renewal of their tenures account for much of the emigration of the 1650s and that religious persecution of the Quakers may also have been important in the later 1650s and early 1660s. Wesley Frank Craven has added to this list the harvest failures of 1657 to 1661, which, he argues, drove many of the hungry to migrate. His reading of the evidence suggests that improved conditions after 1662 account for the drop in servant registrations at Bristol. Other hypotheses have appeared. Some scholars, for example, point to rising real wages in England and the increased demand for labor caused by the rebuilding of London after the great fire. In addition, changes in the colonies, such as the introduction of black slavery in the sugar plantations and the falling prices of tobacco, have been suggested. To this we might add the effects of war with the Dutch.[8] How do these explanations square with what we have learned about Bristol?

Seventeenth-century emigration was of course a highly complex social phenomenon. Each year hundreds of men and women of assorted ages and backgrounds left Bristol for a variety of overseas plantations. Some undoubtedly felt conditions at home to be pushing them abroad, while others almost as certainly found the opportunities for a new life in the colonies calling them forth. Many probably responded to pressures of both kinds. We can hardly expect a single explanation to account completely for their movement. In a sense, history has presented us with too many explanations. Not all of them are testable with the surviving data. For example, we shall probably never know enough about the West Country land market to assess whether the renewal rate for West Country leases corresponds in any way to the rate at which migrants from this region headed for America. However, a quick examination of the evidence we do have calls in doubt a few proposed hypotheses, at least as they might apply to Bristol.

Take the case of the trade in slaves, which competed with the servant trade in supplying agricultural labor to the American colonies. At first glance, the grant in January 1663 of a new charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa might seem to explain the precipitous decline in the enrollment of servants at Bristol during this year, especially to Barbados, where the Africa company made most of its slave shipments. But Bristol’s servant trade operated independently of this competition. During the 1650s and early 1660s it exported large numbers of servants to Barbados, even though slaves were already in heavy use there. There is no reason to think that the Africa company’s activities in the island changed the situation enough to explain the decline in the servant figures. Since the fall in the number of servant enrollments after 1662 also affected Bristol’s traffic to Virginia, where the demand for slaves did not yet match that in the West Indies, some other factor must have been at work limiting the market.[9] As regards the role of war in disrupting Bristol’s servant trade, the timing seems to be somewhat off. Although warfare with the Dutch certainly affected English enterprise in American waters, the Second Dutch War began only in March 1665, albeit after a year of earnest preparations. The decline in servant enrollments in Bristol had already set in more than a year before the talk of war with the Dutch had become serious.[10] Again we are driven to look for further explanations.

Many of the proposed economic explanations, taken individually, seem plausible enough in accounting for the general pattern of change in the servant trade during the second half of the seventeenth century. Undoubtedly, the state of food prices and real wages in England and Wales and of tobacco and sugar prices in the international market affected the numbers of servants indentured and shipped from England and Wales to the colonies during this period. Yet when we trace the history of any particular causal factor in relation to Bristol’s own servant trade, we find that its effects vary widely from period to period. For example, if we lay out our data from Michaelmas to Michaelmas, the state of the harvest is significantly correlated with emigration. This result is almost entirely a consequence of famine conditions during the first eight years of the registration. During these years, the annual peak of servant registrations, which always occurred in the summer and early fall, appears especially high, just as we would expect if food shortages were driving the emigration.[11] But for the period after 1662 the pattern does not hold. The correlation of enrollment with wheat prices breaks down completely: emigration rates appear relatively high in some bad years and relatively low in others. Indeed, 1667–68, with its low grain prices, yields the highest emigration figures for the period following 1662–63 (see Table 29), a fact made all the more puzzling by the increased demand for labor in London that is said to have begun in this year.[12] One possible explanation for this uneven effect of grain prices on emigration may lie in the character of the food market, which had changed after the Restoration, when substitutes for wheat became more widely used. It has been argued that this change diminished the threat of famine in England and thus reduced the effect of high wheat prices upon population trends.[13] Use of the Phelps-Brown/Hopkins index of consumer prices, based on a wide variety of foods and other commodities, permits a test of this hypothesis, even though the data are drawn primarily from the southeast of England. The results are almost exactly the same as those obtained using wheat prices alone. There is a strong and significant positive correlation, but it is heavily dependent on the results for the first eight years of the series; this relationship disappears after 1662 (see Table 29).[14]

Food prices alone, however, tell us little about the economic pressures on population in periods without famine, since a rise in food prices may be matched by a corresponding increase in wages. To correct for this limitation we can look at real wages. These were on the increase in the later seventeenth century, as population growth leveled and then entered a thirty-year period of stagnation or even decline.[15] This change has been used by historians not only to explain the slackening pace of emigration to the colonies but even to account for the shift from indentured servitude to slavery as the preferred labor system in some of them.[16] However, comparison of our Bristol data with real wages yields almost exactly the same results as before. Once again, a strong and significant correlation appears for the years up to Michaelmas 1662, though this time a negative one, but after 1662 the relationship no longer seems meaningful.

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